Original research article| Volume 89, ISSUE 5, P413-418, May 2014

Telling stories about abortion: abortion-related plots in American film and television, 1916–2013



      Popular discourse on abortion in film and television assumes that abortions are under- and misrepresented. Research indicates that such representations influence public perception of abortion care and may play a role in the production of social myths around abortion, with consequences for women’s experience of abortion. To date, abortion plotlines in American film and television have not been systematically tracked and analyzed.

      Study design

      A comprehensive online search was conducted to identify all representations of pregnancy decision making and abortion in American film and television through January 2013. Search results were coded for year, pregnancy decision and mortality outcome.


      A total of 310 plotlines were identified, with an overall upward trend over time in the number of representations of abortion decision making. Of these plotlines, 173 (55.8%) resulted in abortion, 80 (25.8%) in parenting, 13 (4.2%) in adoption and 21 (6.7%) in pregnancy loss, and 16 (5.1%) were unresolved. A total of 13.5% (n=42) of stories ended with the death of the woman who considered an abortion, whether or not she obtained one.


      Abortion-related plotlines occur more frequently than popular discourse assumes. Year-to-year variation in frequency suggests an interactive relationship between media representations, cultural attitudes and policies around abortion regulation, consistent with cultural theory of the relationship between media products and social beliefs. Patterns of outcomes and rates of mortality are not representative of real experience and may contribute to social myths around abortion. The narrative linking of pregnancy termination with mortality is of particular note, supporting the social myth associating abortion with death.


      This analysis empirically describes the number of abortion-related plotlines in American film and television. It contributes to the systematic evaluation of the portrayal of abortion in popular culture and provides abortion care professionals and advocates with an initial accurate window into cultural stories being told about abortion.


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